02 May, 2021

Edward II and Hugh Despenser the Younger (2)

In the first part of this post, I looked at the way that Hugh Despenser the Younger, though Edward II's nephew-in-law from May 1306 onwards, was completely obscure and completely powerless for the first few years of Edward's reign; he held no lands at all until sometime after 1310 and had a comparatively tiny annual income of about £155, given to him by his father. Hugh was only very rarely at court, and his life until 1316 is, for the most part, so obscure that I can only rarely find him on record and have no idea where he lived or what he was up to (apart from building a large family with Eleanor; they had at least ten children between 1308/09 and 1325). Here, I take up Hugh's story from 1314.

Hugh the Younger and his father Hugh the Elder both fought at the battle of Bannockburn on 23 and 24 June 1314. The Lanercost chronicle states that Hugh the Younger was one of the 500 or so men who accompanied Edward II during his gallop to Dunbar Castle after losing the battle, and we know the names of the eleven men who went to Scotland with Hugh: John Haudlo of Strete, Simon de Lyndeseye, Walter Haket, William Walle, Henry de la Rue, William Byby, Nicholas de Sothynton, John de Glaston, John Tyger, John de la Haye and Richard Capel. [1] Nicholas de Sothynton or Sudington was, incidentally, one of the men who, a decade later, helped the two Hugh Despensers capture and imprison Elizabeth Comyn. And Hugh Despenser the Younger, as well as fighting at Bannockburn, was a keen jouster (who left England without permission in 1310 to joust overseas) and was first summoned to a military campaign in May 1306 when he was still a teenager and had just been knighted. He was also, of course, a pirate in the early 1320s, and a particularly merciless one at that. The idea you sometimes see in novels, that Hugh was some kind of swishy feeble court fop, is so far from the truth that it's laughable, and as I'll examine in a future post, he was a genuinely scary person.

The battle of Bannockburn changed Hugh the Younger's fortunes forever, because his extraordinarily wealthy brother-in-law Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester, Edward I's eldest grandchild and the second richest nobleman (after Thomas of Lancaster) in England in the early 1300s, was killed there. As I've written about here before (see here and here), Gilbert's widow Maud de Burgh - who was Hugh Despenser the Younger's second cousin, incidentally - claimed to be pregnant for years, though either was not or lost her infant, and Gilbert's heirs were his three sisters: Hugh's wife Eleanor, Margaret, and Elizabeth. Some writers have claimed that Hugh was already high in Edward II's favour as early as 1314, but he was definitely not. If he had been, Edward would have fallen over himself to give Hugh his and Eleanor's lands as hastily as possible, rather than forcing Hugh to beg him for the lands repeatedly for months on end. This theory also ignores the existence of Sir Roger Damory and Sir Hugh Audley, the influential court favourites of 1315 to 1318/19.

Despite claiming to believe in the dowager countess of Gloucester's years-long pregnancy, Edward II was forced to recognise Hugh the Younger's newfound importance as one of the late earl's co-heirs. Hugh witnessed his first-ever royal charter in May 1316, just under nine years into Edward II's reign; the evidence of charter witness lists reveals who was at court at the time and who was in the king's favour and important enough to be asked to witness the king's grants. Hugh witnessed his second royal charter two months later. [2] Interestingly, Roger Mortimer of Wigmore and his uncle Roger Mortimer of Chirk witnessed the same charter of May 1316; according to the Vita Edwardi Secundi, Hugh the Younger had sworn revenge on the two men for the death of his grandfather Hugh Despenser the justiciar at the battle of Evesham in 1265, when Mortimer of Chirk's father Roger Mortimer of Wigmore (d. 1282) apparently stabbed the justiciar in the back. 

Eventually, in May 1317, just under three years after the earl of Gloucester's death at Bannockburn, Edward II was forced to stop pretending that he believed Countess Maud would bear her husband's posthumous child, and ordered the division of the massive de Clare inheritance among Gilbert's three sisters and their husbands. It took royal clerks six months to prepare the division, and the heirs received their lands in November 1317. Hugh Despenser the Younger, as the husband of the eldest sister, took the best share, which included the lordship of Glamorgan in South Wales. The neighbouring lordship of Gwynllwg, however, once part of Glamorgan, was now separated from it and given to Hugh's sister-in-law Margaret de Clare and her second husband Hugh Audley. Hugh Despenser, disgruntled about this, entered Gwynllwg sometime before 12 December 1317 (when the news reached Edward II's ears in Windsor) and took the homage of Margaret and Audley's tenants, as though they were his own. Edward II was having none of it, and on 30 January and 4 and 14 March 1318, ordered Hugh to withdraw from the lordship, which he had 'unlawfully taken'. [3] So we see that as late as March 1318, Hugh Despenser the Younger was still not high in Edward II's favour or affections. If he had been, Edward would have fondly waved off his machinations to gain control of lands that were not rightfully his, as the king was often to do in later years.

Now the wealthy lord of Glamorgan, Hugh the Younger was elected as Edward II's chamberlain by the English magnates - importantly, not by the king himself - in the summer or autumn of 1318. The exact date of his appointment is not recorded, but he was confirmed in the role by the parliament that began in York on 20 October 1318, and on 6 December that year appears as 'Hugh Despenser, chamberlain' in the ordinance made for the king's household. The later chronicler Geoffrey le Baker claimed that Hugh was made chamberlain against Edward's wishes, as he hated him. [4] Whether Edward really did hate Hugh, I don't know, and Baker's statement may be an exaggeration, but it seems clear that he didn't like him or trust him, despite his great affection for Hugh's wife and Hugh's father. Born probably in the late 1280s, Hugh the Younger was about thirty years old in 1318, incidentally.

Somehow, in the months and years following his appointment as chamberlain, Hugh Despenser the Younger worked his way into Edward II's affections until the king became - what? infatuated with him maybe, dependent on him in some way, in love and/or in lust with him, perhaps. There's no way of knowing for sure what happened between the two men, but they became remarkably close, and from 1319 to 1326, where Hugh's itinerary can be established, his location almost always coincided with the king's (see Appendix 2 of my Hugh Despenser the Younger and Edward II: Downfall of a King's Favourite). The Anonimalle chronicle says that 'the king loved [Hugh] dearly, with all his heart and mind, above all others', Geoffrey le Baker stated that Hugh enchanted Edward's heart, and the Scalacronica says that Edward 'loved and entirely trusted' Hugh. [5] 

It's frustrating that we don't have the kind of evidence that would tell us exactly how Hugh worked his way so strongly into the favour of a man who had never previously shown the slightest liking for him. Just about the earliest example I can find of Hugh's influence over the king dates to April 1319. Hugh complained to Edward about the archbishop of Canterbury, Walter Reynolds, excommunicating some of his officials in Wales because they had arrested a renegade monk of Ogbourne Priory in Wiltshire and delivered him to the prior. On 10 April 1319, Edward ordered Archbishop Reynolds to revoke the sentence of excommunication, and, not coincidentally, the prior of Ogbourne acknowledged that he owed Hugh the staggeringly vast sum of £2,220. Edward's previously influential 'favourite' (and lover?) Sir Roger Damory, meanwhile, witnessed his last royal charters on 4 February, 25 May and 19 July 1319; his disappearance from court and from royal favour is visible in the records, and by 1321 he had turned firmly against Edward. [6]

By September 1319, Hugh Despenser's hold over the king seems to have been quite secure. During the disastrously unsuccessful siege of Berwick-on-Tweed that month, Hugh sent the first of many long, demanding, hectoring letters to Sir John Inge, sheriff of Glamorgan. (I find it impossible to read any of the letters without wincing on poor Inge's behalf.) This long letter opened with Hugh announcing that he wished for the advancement of Inge's brother within Holy Church, and that 'we will put this wish into effect as soon as we can'. The (unnamed) brother had previously been given a church by Edward II at Hugh's request. Hugh had, however, since found out that the church was of little value and that therefore, he would arrange with Edward that the next good church which fell vacant would be given to the Inge brother instead. [7] In this letter, Hugh referred to Edward simply as le Roy, 'the king', rather than 'our lord the king' or 'the lord king', as would have been polite and conventional, and which he always did in his later letters to Inge. It gives me the impression that Hugh's attitude towards Edward II was rather dismissive, even perhaps rather disrespectful.

In the next post, I'll take a further look at Hugh and Edward's complex relationship, and at what happened between them after 1319.


1) The Chronicle of Lanercost 1272-1346, ed. H. Maxwell (1913), p. 208; Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland, vol. 5, Supplementary, no. 2961.

2) The National Archives C 53/102, no. 12; C 53/103, no. 58.

3) Calendar of Patent Rolls 1317-21, pp. 60, 103, 120-21; Calendar of Close Rolls 1313-18, pp. 531-2; TNA C 47/10/43/22.

4) Chronicon Galfridi de Baker de Swynebroke, ed. E.M. Thompson, p. 6.

5) The Anonimalle Chronicle 1307 to 1334, eds. W.R. Childs and J. Taylor, pp. 92-3; Galfridi de Baker, p. 10; Scalacronica: The Reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III, ed. H. Maxwell, p. 70.

6) CCR 1318-23, pp. 132-3, 138; TNA SC 1/36/68, C 53/105, no, 31, C 53/106. no. 34.

7) The letter is printed in the original French in Cartae et Alia Munimenta quae ad Dominium Glamorgancia Pertinent, vol. 3, pp. 1063-5.


sami parkkonen said...

For some reason the relationship between Edward and Hugh intrigues me. There is something going on which makes this completely different from all the other relationships with men in Edward's life, like something is hidden but we can detect that this was not just "two guys in love" situation.

Piers of course was the Great love in Edward's life, platonic or not, and Isabella had no problem with him. She was not too much bothered by Darmory or Audley either, which means she knew those two were not threat to her or her son. Perhaps she knew that both of them were just passing thing for Edward, like a teen crush or similar, nothing more.

But with Hugh thing are completely different. They did not like each other at first, Hugh was pretty cold towards Edward and Edward hardly acknowledged him at all. Then everything changed radically. Why? Something happened which changed the game all together. What was it?

Usually Edward was impulsive man, meaning if Hugh had attracted him he would have made it know at once. But here he barely noticed Hugh in the beginning. What changed his mind?

If I put my tin foil hat on I can imagine the following scenario:

Hugh and Edward were not a pair at all. It was Edward and Eleanor all the time. For what ever reason Edward fell in with her and Hugh knew this and allowed it to develop into a real secret romance. Now, there were many thing wrong in this liaison, so much so that it was potentially political dynamite for both men and Eleanor. It had to stay a secret.

sami parkkonen said...

Part II of my comment:

The little I know of Hugh, pimping his own wife to the king for a gain would not have been out of his character. He was a medieval gangster who did what ever he had to do to get what he wanted. If his wife was sleeping with the king he got him by the you-know-what. Very few people would have accepted this kind of behavior and the church would have been mad, to put it slightly. Plus, trough Eleanor he got the most intimate information of the well being of the king, the physical condition and the most intimate thoughts Edward might have had. Hugh could use this romance to squeeze Edward for his own gain.

It was dangerous for Hugh too, no doubt. Edward could have blown the whole house of cards down when ever he would have grown tired of Eleanor, he could have said something about it to the outsiders or just walked away from it all. People would have looked him as a cuckold and barely worth for the title of a knight. He could have lost his prestige among his peers in one go.

But Hugh read Edward right. This king was not too interested in governing so Hugh could take over some seemingly mundane business and being the royal chamberlain he could control the people the king met and saw etc. And he actually did it to the extent that he prevented Isabella from seeing her husband. And Edward wanted to keep it all hush hush and enjoy life and the company of Eleanor.

Isabella on the other hand realized that Hugh was not Audley nor he was Darmory. He was not Piers Gaveston either. What ever was going on between him and Edward, Piers never even tried to get in between Isabella and Edward. I believe he supported them both and was advicing young Isabella about the court life and the politics while he was around. But Hugh was not that kind of a man.

Isabella realized that this man was a direct threat to her and to her son. And when Hugh began to spill poison in Edward's mind about his "French wife" and began to shun her off, Isabella must have understood that Hugh was playing it for keeps. She might have even realized at some point the whole scenario and if she did she could have realized that a woman, a female lover, was much more dangerous for her or for her son because if she was eliminated and Eleanor married to the king with a son, Isabella's son would have lost everything.

Or perhaps Edward and Hugh were just gay lovers. Who knows? But I am convinced that something weird was going on. I have no idea how other people see this strange foursome but if I do not like someone, if someone is a stranger to me for years despite seeing the face for years, that person stays a stranger. Just like in school or university. Some people you do not care for and they remain that way. Why Edward saw the attraction in Hugh all of a sudden after years ignoring him?

Maybe he did not. Maybe he fell for Eleanor. That would also explain why he acted so harsh against Isabella in the end. Perhaps Hugh and Edward just acted like they had a thing going on, after all everyone had accepted Audley and Darmory in the past without too much noise. If people believed Hugh and the king had a relationship, so be it. But if the people would find out that the king was sleeping with his niece, a wife of a high ranking knight, the whole thing would blow up like a bomb.

Anonymous said...

IMO, the connection between Edward and Eleanor explains a lot -- I agree that once it became sexual, Hugh would have Edward where he wanted him (blackmail).


Anonymous said...

In such a short space of time Hugh went from being a hanger on to his wife and father at court to being a person of great influence on Edward. If only we knew how!
Something must have occurred that swayed Edward greatly to see Hugh in a different light, or maybe Hugh and his manipulative ways were just a little too much for Edward. Despite all the letters, the writs of land and monies owed (bribes to Hugh) by people to keep Hugh sweet and everything diligently recorded, not a scribble by any scribe/clerk anywhere as to Hugh's hold over the king or how his power was obtained.

Did he by any chance happen upon Edwards's secret liaisons with his wife, did Hugh and Eleanor plot together, or was Eleanor coerced by Hugh?
I dont think Hugh's relationship was purely based on his love of Edward as Piers had been. His quick rise in favour was definitely no long term passion that had been shared between Edward and Piers that had grown from them being young boys, then into manhood, as Piers had watched as Edward became King, they shared great changes in their lives. Hugh seemed to battle through all his life changes to reach the heights of power alone, apart from his wife Eleanor at his side.

Karen Hill said...

Hi Kathryn, its Karen here,not sure why the above post came through as anonymous,but it is me with my mutterings on everyone's favourite court thug.
It does beggar belief that some folk still think of him as some court fop, in today's terms we might assume he has some anger management issues. Hugh never seems happier than when he is throwing punches and drawing blood. He was most certainly a person not to get on the wrong side of and just a little bit terrifying for those who did.

Karen (I do not like thee Hugh Despenser) but I love you really!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks for the great comments, Sami, Esther and Karen! Really interesting discussion. And by the way, if anyone's wondering why I haven't posted on my Edward II Facebook page for a while, it's because FB has been messing around with something called a 'new pages experience', and ever since I haven't been able to post on the page. Endlessly frustrating.

Karen Hill said...

Very annoying FB...don't they realise this is royalty they're messing with. Raise an army, stick Hugh Despenser at the front (he will scare the living daylights out of them) if that fails back it up with Piers and Roger armed to the teeth with lance and sword...😂😂😂. Hope the contrariants, FB, are soon brought back under control.
Karen XX

Kathryn Warner said...

:D Yeah, Hugh would scare the heck out of them. :D xx

sami parkkonen said...

How would Hugh handle FB? At first he would send them a nice and polite letter which would end something like this: "We do wish health to you all and that all is well in future as well, considering how gravely you have misjudged our friendliness towards your persons, and we hope nothing would happen to you which would danger your physical well being. Bare in mind that at this hour we do not have any doubt you shall do as we hope, making it certain that there will be no unfortunate ill will towards you or your families, yet. Yours truly... "

Karen said...

Sami, do not walk underneath the window of Hugh's chamber office, there's a good chance he will be throwing his computer (a clerk fastened by chain to a writing slope) out of it when his patience reaches breaking point with FB. He will be round with his band of thugs to trash the rest of the office with large war hammers later.��⚔

Kathryn, has his grace had any luck accessing his FB chamber account? or is he trying to find a jumped up young squire who is looking for a quick promotion to 'favourite' if he can fix the problem! ����

Karen xx

Kathryn Warner said...

Karen, sadly not :( I sent a message to FB yesterday morning and have still heard nothing. :( xx